As if I don’t have enough to do, a few months ago I consented to teach a ten-week course on work force ethics at the local house of corrections. (Probably at some point I should be shot with stupid pills for taking on so much.) I taught my first class on Monday night.
I went a couple of weeks ago for orientation. The facility here in Berkshire is relatively new. The corridors are wide and well-lit. It’s clean and the walls are basically bare, except for some markings to indicate the pods where the inmates are. It seems pretty confusing, though. Doors automatically slide open without you knowing who saw you waiting there.
The orientation went over rules and procedures. Some rules seem really trivial, like no staples in the papers I hand out. (Inmates could remove the staple, put it in their electrical outlet, and start a fire.) All personal items, such as cell phones and wallets, are locked in lockers before going beyond the reception area. We wear an emergency beeper when we’re in the main part of the house of correction. When I hand out pencils or pens, I have to account for every one of them before I release the men from class.
You can imagine I was nervous in a room with ten inmates. One of the staff member was present, which was reassuring. As they came into the room, several of them came up to me to introduce themselves and shake my hand.
I went around the room and asked them to introduce themselves and to tell me about their work experience. Some had food experience. Many had done construction work. Some had done landscaping. Almost all of them, however, had several different jobs in their work history.
This first class was about work. Its value economically and emotionally. We talked how one’s work defines identity to the everyone else. I told them I was a church pastor and a hospice chaplain, the latter, I think, sort of blew a couple of them away.
As we got into the evening, we spent a lot of time on taxes. It began with my telling them how to calculate their annual income based upon an hourly wage and that their calculations won’t reflect what they take home because of taxes. I don’t know how a 1099 came up, but it did.
Honestly, I was surprised by these men. They were pretty savvy. There was a lot of practical knowledge and experience among them. One guy kept talking about doing auto detailing for work after he gets out (he said if he does four cars a day, he can make $600 per day), but he didn’t want to pay taxes. A few of the other guys pointed out that he has to pay taxes and that taxes are important to a functioning society. They made clear to him that taxes pay for roads and the education of their children and even the police who arrested them. They also pointed out that taxes enable them to get fed in the house of correction and to take classes like the one I’m teaching. It took awhile, but the guy who didn’t want to pay taxes (he kept saying, “The money is mine”) began to understand that taxes is part of the deal and he began to soften his position by the end of the session.
It’s not that I expected the men to be stupid, but I was surprised that a few of them were quite articulate. They were more thoughtful than I had been led to believe. They were also very respectful. At the end of the session they turned in their pencils unprompted and none were broken.
Let’s be honest. I had biases about inmates going in, which was not a good thing. Now that I spent a couple of hours with them, I realize that I was wrong.
It’s not that we think they are innocent and wrongly accused. But it is a surprise to find them as respectful and thoughtful men, which speaks to the fallacy and danger of prejudices and biases.
As I was leaving at 8:00 PM, I saw dozens of people in the waiting room. Almost all of the visitors were women, most of them probably no older than their early 30s. Several young children were waiting with their mothers. I watched as one-by-one they went through the metal detector. I felt sorry for the kids because it was a school night and that they have to see their fathers in jail.
The guard told me, though, that coming to visit a prisoner with kids at 8:00 PM is normal because the activities inmates have: work, classes, and meals. Getting a long and satisfactory visit will take time, but it is too bad they have to come so late in the day. And it is a pretty cheerless place for socializing.
At the end of my class I had a chance to speak with one other teacher — she taught across the hall from me. She teaches them art, and some do very well with it. She has been teaching in the house of correction for years and loves it. As you get to know these inmates, you realize that some of them are not much different from you or I. As she noted, many of them suffered some form of abuse when they were growing up. It can be a fine line between being on the inside or being on the outside.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this initial experience. I may post a few more observations over the next several weeks. I can already see why some people really like prison ministry.